from the collection of the New-York Historical Society
In 1754 the New York Society Library was formed. It occupied rooms in City Hall (later Federal Hall), nearly side-by-side with the earlier The Public Library, founded in 1700 under the administration of the Earl of Bellomont. (That library was housed in Trinity Church.)
The New York Society Library's first permanent home was erected at 33 Nassau Street in 1795. It remained there until 1836 when its magnificent Greek Revival building on Broadway at Leonard Street and Catherine Lane was completed.
The first and second New York Society Library buildings. History of the New York Society Library, 1908 (copyright expired)
The constant northward movement of Manhattan's residential neighborhoods forced a third move. Austin Baxter Keep, in his 1908 History of the New York Society Library, wrote, "By 1854 plans were well under way for a new location for the Library." The previous year, three plots had been purchased from Adeline E. Schermerhorn, widow of Peter Augustus Schermerhorn, for $18,650 (about $593,000 in 2022).
They were situated on the east side of University Avenue (later University Place), between 12th and 13th Streets. The neighborhood was filling with refined homes, and the vacant parcel came with detailed restrictions. Only a building of "brick or stone of at least two stories in height" could be built, and the purchaser could not "erect, permit or suffer upon the said premises or any part thereof any public school, theatre, or other place for public amusement, or any other place for any other trade, business or occupation dangerous, noxious or offense to the neighbouring inhabitants."
In March 1855 the trustees approved the firm of T. Thomas & Son as the architects of the new library. The cornerstone was laid that summer, and on April 28, 1856 the trustees met in "the almost finished structure," as worded by Austin Baxter Keep. The Italianate style brick-and-stone structure was 52-feet-wide at the property line, allowing for extra light and ventilation inside. Towards the back, it spread out to engulf the entire width of the parcel.
Architects Thomas Thomas and his son, Griffith Thomas, arranged the facade in three vertical and two horizonal sections. The entrance was centered within the rusticated stone base. At the second floor, arched openings crowned with Renaissance inspired pediments flanked a Palladian-style group of windows. They were surmounted by a carved entablature announcing "Founded A. D. 1754." A second carved plaque, directly above, read "Society Library." A hefty cast iron cornice was crowned with a handsome Italianate balustrade.
Valentine's Manual of the City of New York in 1856 wrote:
On entering the front door, the visitor finds himself in a hall forty-seven feet long and twelve wide, handsomely paved with tessalated [i.e., colorful, geometric tiled] pavement. On the left hand is a comfortable room for a ladies' reading room, sixteen feet by thirty. A similar room on the right is used as a conversation room. At the end of the hall are folding doors opening into the large reading room, thirty-one feet by seventy-three, well lights and well furnished with papers and periodicals.
It was the second floor that was the most impressive. A flight of stairs led to the library proper, described by Valentine's Manual as "a noble apartment." The great room engulfed the entire second floor, its ceiling rising 35-feet to an oblong glass dome. The space was girded by two galleries which, like the main floor, contained "quiet alcoves." The library was designed to hold 100,000 volumes.
The cost of construction had added another $55,560, bringing the total expenditure to about $2.36 million by today's standards.
Sixteen years after the opening of the new building, it was the scene of the library's centennial. On November 10, 1872, The New York Times reported that the anniversary "was celebrated last evening in the hall of the New-York Historical Society building...At 7-1/2 o'clock a brilliant assemblage of ladies and gentlemen--many of them literary lights--occupied the seats in the main hall." The current president of the board of trustees, Dr. Frederic De Peyster, gave the main address, which focused on the history of the institution.
Surprisingly, the trustees of the New York Society Library were duped in 1880 when they rented a room to Albert Welles's American College of Heraldry. On February 6, 1881, the New-York Tribune reported, "A large gilt sign over a window of the building No. 67 University-place, displays the words 'American College of Heraldry.' Near the top of the building cut in stone are the words 'Society Library.' This latter sign, however, is not conspicuous, and strangers unfamiliar with the building suppose it to be devoted to the purposes of the College of Heraldry."
The newspaper had done an investigation and concluded the college "which is using the names of many prominent citizens as regents and life members, is a pretentious sham." Welles, said the article, was not only the president, but the entire faculty, and he had "succeeded by ingenious devices in getting $50 each from these regents and life members, who have no duties and no privileges of any value." Understandably, the college was soon gone from the Society Library building.
On the evening of August 31, 1883 the janitor, C. William Ormsby, was going through the rooms, closing the shutters for the night when he "surprised a man in one of the rooms on the second floor endeavoring to pry open a drawer in one of the desks which contained some money and rare coins," according to The New York Times. Ormsby detained the intruder and summoned a policeman. At his hearing, 26-year-old Paul H. Rieve explained that he was a machinist out of work and was simply in the building looking for employment. The judge was not convinced and Rieve was held on $1,000 bail awaiting trial.
Around 1896 University Place was renumbered, giving the New York Society Library the new address of 109.
When this photograph was taken in 1906, commercial buildings had begun to populate the area. from the collection of the New York Public Library
The year 1914 was remarkable for the New York Society Library for two very different reasons. At some point between 1840 and 1854, the original parchment charter, granted by George III in 1772, had disappeared. At the annual shareholders' meeting on April 28, 1914, it was announced that the venerable document "was restored to the library by a resident of Brooklyn."
An equally surprising story affected the janitor's family that year. John McCarthy, his wife, and their children lived in a small apartment in the rear of the building. In January, Anita Faithful McCarthy read in the newspapers that William Smith, a "recluse on the Bowery," had died, leaving a $200,000 estate (roughly $5.34 million today). Smith was the assumed name of Dudley Jardine, son of a millionaire organ builder. Anita knew immediately that Jardine, alias Smith, was her father.
Jardine had married Anita Blackwell following the Civil War, "but lived away from her most of the time, explaining that he was doing private detective work," said The Evening World on October 23, 1914. "While he was living this dual life the child Anita Faithful Smith was born, and shortly afterward Jardine left the little family and took up his abode in a lodging house."
Anita told a reporter from The Sun, "My father deserted my mother. I supported her from the time I was 16 years old except one year, when my father let my brother and me stay in the Juvenile Asylum." Anita's mother had died in 1911, and now she went to court to claim her share of her father's fortune.
On October 23 The Evening World reported, "There are five children romping with joy to-day around a smiling woman of middle age in a rear apartment at No. 109 University place, and their lives hereafter will be blessed with the good things of life, while yesterday they were the children of a poor janitor." Anita's long fought battle resulted in a decision that "she and her children are to share largely" in the estate.
By the Depression years, once again the northward movement of society caused the New York Society Library to rethink its location. On May 3, 1936, the Chicago Tribune reported, "The New York Society Library, one of New York's hoariest social institutes, is moving. For years it has stood on University place, grimly ignoring the onslaught of lofty buildings and second-hand shops. Now the library can no longer take it, and its officials have purchased the residence of Mrs. John S. Rogers on East 79th street."
The T. Thomas & Son structure was demolished in 1939, replaced by an six-story apartment building designed by H. L. Feldman, which survives.
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